In the preface to Days of Contempt, André Malraux alerted his readers to the fact that ‘it is the concentration camps that are dealt with here.’ This was in 1935, and the first of Hitler’s concentration camps had been established only two years earlier. But this preface is misleading, for the novel is neither informative nor prophetic about the concentration camps – what it mainly reveals is the conditioning power of the historical imagination. Its hero hardly differs from the prototypes of the Romantic revolutionary, and his prison is not a camp but a stone vault. You wouldn’t think that more than a hundred years had passed since Fidelio. But as the names Dachau or Buchenwald began to appear more widely in the literature of the Thirties, it was clear that they referred to a new phenomenon – not to traditional prisons but to hutted camps spreading throughout Germany – and to a new concept: not just a way of dealing with political prisoners, but internal repression on a vast scale, embodying the very meaning of the totalitarian state.
But not much more than the names appeared in books; and what was known of them in official circles seems to have made little impression. Bruno Bettelheim tells us that from 1939 to 1942 it was impossible to get the camps and the SS taken seriously. Bettelheim was imprisoned before the war in Dachau and Buchenwald, and has given his story in The Informed Heart. From personal experience he saw only what Germans were doing to Germans – and over the whole period of the camps up to 1945, what happened inside Germany was to be an almost insignificant proportion of the holocaust.He was released in 1939 and pursued his career in America. Yet none of the later accounts establishes more clearly what the camps were already designed to produce: the slave mentality, the regression to childhood, the complicity of the victims.
By 1942 the function of the camps had moved on to mass extermination. Such information about this as got out – for instance, Arthur Koestler’s description in Horizon of early experiments with gas – was not readily believed by readers who were by then in the middle of a war. There was plenty of evidence in the end, as the Allies occupied the camps: even so, much of the truth was missing. Buried under the wreckage of Europe – and the attempted cover-up operations of the SS had at least succeeded in destroying records – the truth about the camps was no easier to get at than the history of a lost civilisation. Hilberg’s thorough account in The Destruction of the European Jews was not published until 1961. The estimate of the total death-roll now stands at 12 million, of whom about half were Jews. It’s not surprising that an event so large and still mysterious should continue to give rise to a stream of publications forty years later. Schindler’s Ark is a documentary novel that like all the other reports and reconstructions seeks to establish what really happened.
As they began to emerge, the facts naturally gave rise to speculation – and later to controversy. It was impossible to consider the facts without venturing to interpret them. One of the first accounts of Buchenwald, David Rousset’s L’Univers Concentrationnaire, is rather weak on facts, but offers a welter of interpretations – glorifying the strength and discipline of organised Communism in the camp, yet making the connection with Kafka, Ubu and the ‘absurd’. This came out in 1945 and did much to establish a mystique of the concentration camp in the Paris of the Existentialists. Jean-François Steiner’s Treblinka is far more impressive, by virtue of its convincing detail: but it also relies heavily on its powers of persuasion. It is much concerned to explain and interpret – the relationship, for instance, between Jewish collaboration in the running of the camp and the sacred Jewish duty to survive as long as possible. Or it will interpret suicide while awaiting death as an exercise of freedom of choice and a decision against the system. Who could tell in an individual case whether this is a right or a wrong interpretation? It is a persuasive one in the book. Mainly this is the story of the famous revolt of those still surviving in Treblinka in 1943. All the reader’s sympathies are engaged by this rare and exemplary instance of men revolting rather than face their own extinction – but the reader is harrowed too, far more than just by the horror of the events, and more than the book seems to intend. For the law of natural selection in the camps means that the heroism of revolt is only possible for the strongest, and the strongest are those who have survived by liquidating the others. The book exacts a horrible complicity from the reader in siding with the heroic.
All interpretation tends to the coercive, however pure or comprehensible the intentions of the writer. But another problem arises, and anyone who wants a plain view of the facts encounters it. It is that the facts themselves, in this context, so often seem like fantasy. Primo Levi’s account of his year in Auschwitz, If this is a man, is admirably calm and objective: it reads like Gulliver’s Travels. It’s not just the horrible but the fantastic that keeps cropping up at Treblinka – as in the false railway station, designed ‘to restore a minimum of hope’, with its real flowerbeds and its trompe-l’oeil doors and windows and the painted clock showing three o’clock (‘Untersturmführer Kurt Franz had stopped time in Treblinka’). Or the task set the last survivors of digging up 700,000 bodies in order to burn them. Stranger still are some of the moral considerations that brought about technological advances in mass extermination: the invention of gas chambers was in part promoted by a desire to ensure the peaceful death of the victims, as well as by concern for the SS troops’ morale, which had suffered from the unpleasantness of shooting Jews in the back of the neck. When Himmler called the extermination of the Jews ‘a glorious page in our history’ he wasn’t exulting over the Jews, but congratulating his SS troops on the fortitude required ‘to have stuck it out, and at the same time to have remained decent’. In this fantasy world, the leaders are indeed quite incredible. Höss of Auschwitz, Lalka of Treblinka – and now Keneally adds another of the same, Amon Goeth of Plaszow – display the same indistinguishable Ordinariness as Adolf Eichmann, to whom Hannah Arendt devoted her ‘Report on the Banality of Evil’. What makes them so fantastic is reckoning their ordinariness against their deeds. The accounts are no help in understanding them, for they can only be represented as unbelievable. Lalka’s special project for Treblinka, starting with the pretty railway station, was to make it ‘not just an extermination camp, but a complete world’ – and so it became: not just the counterfeit world he wanted, with plays, sports, weddings and parties, but a world on its own, like nothing else in the universe.
It is still a question what a novel might do with this subject. The modern novel has room for fantasy, as well as for brute facts and extreme vagaries of character. But what the novel seems to want to do is to borrow the camps for the old theme that sex and violence go together. This is the novelists’ idea, for in spite of what amateurs of sadism might suppose, there’s no sign that sex had much to do with the horrors of the camps. The neat juxtapositions in The White Hotel of psyche and history, of delusions of sexual violence and the massacre at Babi Yar, are of course a novelist’s trick, or perhaps a poet’s metaphor, but in any case have been found contrived and trivialising. There may be more to say for the appropriation of Auschwitz (including Höss himself) by a thick, mainstream American novel, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice: this actually has some reality about it, because it’s pretty sure in its own conventions, corny as these are. Sophie is a dazzlingly beautiful survivor of Auschwitz, and while the pathos of her past is revealed in extended flashbacks, in the foreground she has a handsome role in the sexual initiation of a young American male. But this is only to say that no great novel has yet been made out of the era of the death camps. As the era slips further into the past, it will go on being appropriated like any other for all the trickery and distortions of art – it has no special right to protection. But it’s true that this subject is now at a historical juncture where it’s particularly exposed to suspicion.
‘Holocaust’ art has become a term to be feared; it suggests an art intended for the millions, and therefore supposed to be sinister in its effect, and probably in motivation too. Yet this may be quite an absurd suspicion, ideologically no less ingenuous than the art in question. With the TV fictionalisation of the holocaust in mind, it’s fair enough to comment on ‘the reduction of experience to commercial sentiment’, but it’s merely doctrinaire and perverse to assert, like the ideological witch-hunter Wolfgang Pohrt: ‘That the German past has been made socially acceptable under the trademark of the TV series Holocaust is proof enough that its current rediscovery is being paid for by its political neutralisation – that the birth of concern for National Socialism is nothing other than a first-class funeral.’ The ‘proof enough’ in that sentence is a fair pointer to there being none.
It would be just as easy to accuse Schindler’s Ark of ‘political neutralisation’ because it tells a good story, is utterly absorbing in all its detail – horrifying as most of that is – and above all because its principal character is a good German. This would be an absurd reading of the book. If it sells well in Germany it will surely be on its own merits, and not for any suspect reason. We don’t need the author’s assurance that all the events are factual to see that this is the most dispassionate of books. Compared with other narratives of the holocaust, it de-fantasises its subject.
Oskar Schindler’s industrial activities took place from 1939 to 1944 in German-occupied Poland – in Cracow and the labour camp at nearby Plaszow, with the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau a short distance down the line – and later at Brinnlitz in occupied Czechoslovakia. Under cover of these operations, this Sudeten-German employer of Jewish slave labour contrived over the years and against all odds to save his Jews from extinction. The story is as populous with minor characters as a Dickens novel, and unfailingly interesting on its documentary material: enamelware and munitions factories, the bureaucracy of the German regime and how to subvert it, the complexities of Jewish organisation, collaboration and resistance. It describes the creation of Amon Goeth’s labour camp at Plaszow with the practical man’s interest in construction that is also found in Solzhenitsyn. This is not to deny Keneally his novelist’s imagination, which shows in the marshalling of his big scenes. While Oskar, the blond Aryan on a horse, watches from afar the clearing of the Cracow ghetto, and like one of Tolstoy’s heroes has a moment of illumination – ‘ “Beyond this day,” he would claim, “no thinking person could fail to see what would happen” ’ – the reader’s attention is on a three-year-old dressed in bright red who is slipping out of the cordon of gleaming SS knee boots.
Keneally keeps away from the tones of outrage or pathos. It would be hard to say how far the detachment is to be accounted for by the lapse of years, by the skill of a novelist, or, in some cases, just by lack of sufficient information. It’s a tone with no time for optimism about human nature; and yet a comprehending tone, fascinated and respectful and touched with irony. All the people in the book are variously baffling, inconsistent, opaque. And truthfully so – opaqueness is a quality of reality. Certainly, Keneally enjoys astonishing us with some almost incredible anecdotes. There’s the baneful influence on the SS of the tune ‘Gloomy Sunday’, and the success of the Jewish camp musicians in using it to entice a love-sick officer of the Waffen SS to suicide. But in the ghastly abnormality of Plaszow, it’s more often only normality – as in the ‘old-fashioned’ courtship and marriage of the prisoners Josef Bau and Rebecca Tannenbaum, attended by luck, low stratagem and absurd courage – that seems bizarre.
Perhaps such paradoxes become more obvious with the effect of time; and the book makes comic as well as serious play with them. But the distancing technique, which gives Keneally his freedom to forage for human interest in slave labour factories and death camps without being turned to stone, owes a lot to the prime fact that this is after all a success story. It is about the mysterious goodness of human nature. Oskar collected Jews to work in his factories, bought them, even won them at cards: and at the end of the war they were still alive. This is remarkable enough: but so is the way it’s inextricably linked with Oskar’s human failings. His goodness seems inseparable from his self-indulgence, his appetites for cognac and women, his skill at black-marketeering, his talent for not merely cultivating but actually enjoying the company of the murderous Plaszow camp commandant – ‘drinking with the devil’: ‘He’s always been a man of transactions.’
But Oskar is not just a man of transactions, he is a mystery. How did he survive for so long Himmler’s directive of 1942: ‘Measures are to be taken against those who claim to be acting in the interest of armaments production but are in reality only furthering the interests of the Jews’? But this is nothing beside the question why, in the first place, he opted against the system. Keneally hasn’t got a good answer.
Does it matter, not knowing why Oskar acted as he did? The Jews respected him, and in 1974 buried him with honour in Jerusalem. But isn’t he rather more of an impressive conundrum than an impressive figure? Can we see in him an inverted Eichmann, an instance of the banality of goodness, since here the impulse to do right instead of wrong seems to sprout so fortuitously among all the other concerns – the conscientious self-interest, the pride in professional skills, the ‘business as usual’ mentality – in which he so much resembles the prototype of the banality of evil?
A good novel might be expected to help us to understand more about human nature than we did before. Schindler’s Ark is all the better because it doesn’t. It respects the mystery of Oskar. Incidentally, it advances the cause of the documentary novel, by showing that it can deal with a real person behaving well, while in the hands of Mailer and Capote it has been given over to understanding criminals. But then Keneally isn’t claiming to understand anyone. He respects the old tradition of story-telling that doesn’t explain or interpret or coerce but trusts the story itself.